Rex Tillerson’s expected appointment as secretary of state is a strong choice to be America’s next diplomat. As chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, the fifth largest publicly traded company in the world, Tillerson has for over a decade ably led a corporation with annual revenues exceeding $260 billion and has operations in over 21 countries. Exxon’s revenues surpass the GDPs of a number of nations. With over 75,000 employees, Exxon is also regarded as one of the world’s best managed companies.
After over 40 years at Exxon, Tillerson was expected to retire by March of 2017 as part of the company’s mandatory retirement policies. However, his likely acceptance to succeed John Kerry underscores that unlike many corporate leaders who pursue much easier post-retirement pursuits, Tillerson has chosen to take on a challenge of great proportions.
Tillerson is the right leader for the job for these five main reasons:
1) The State Department is an organization that needs substantial reform: Some commentators were quick to argue that being secretary of state is not the same as leading a company. But in reality, the State Department has a budget of $65 billion and nearly 70,000 personnel. A proven CEO of a much larger organization is a strong choice to overhaul the State Department’s cumbersome bureaucracy and turn it into a more agile, mission-focused organization which attracts and retains the best people. With a human capital drain in the Foreign Service, John Kerry leaves his successor an organization that needs a substantial re-boot.
2) Tillerson has been a successful commercial statesman: Serving as Exxon’s CEO requires adept skills in negotiating and managing a number of relationships across the world with numerous countries, organizations, and actors. Unlike his predecessors Kerry and Clinton who ultimately did not make the final decision, Tillerson had to take ultimate responsibility for the deals he made. Tillerson, more so than most executives sitting in a C-Suite, had to navigate a number of complex geopolitical challenges that impacted Exxon’s bottom line.
3) Tillerson’s relationships with states such as Russia and Qatar are not necessarily a liability: While Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have raised concerns about Tillerson’s close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, it made business sense similar to any other oil major CEO to have constructive relations with countries where their firm has significant operations. Tillerson’s ability to manage a relationship with Putin amidst deepening global tensions between the US and Russia is more of a sign that he can successfully advance and manage complex relationships even when the geopolitical headwinds are against him. This will be a valuable asset as secretary of state as Tillerson navigates relationships with Moscow and Beijing.
4) Tillerson has a good rapport with the President-elect Donald Trump: A strong and effective secretary of state requires the faith and confidence of the president. Unlike Romney who likely would be more of an outsider than an insider in this new administration, Tillerson is a leader Trump respects and will likely listen to. He is also someone who will able to hold his own with the other strong personalities in the Cabinet. If Trump appoints a strong deputy secretary of state such as John Bolton (who has had extensive experience at State), Tillerson could balance his strengths with those of Bolton.
5) Tillerson has extensive experience in navigating domestic politics: With Exxon’s extensive operations in the US, Tillerson has had to navigate Congress, the White House, and the domestic regulatory environment. A successful secretary of state, such as James Baker, had a keen sense of both global affairs and US politics. This proved invaluable in his effectiveness as a secretary of state and counselor to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. Bush. Tillerson arguably has had more domestic and international experience than any other secretary of state since Baker.
While Tillerson may not naturally hold the same foreign policy intellectual gravitas and traditional experience that Henry Kissinger or George Schulze did, his experience in leading Exxon for over 10 years has given him a deep understanding of global affairs. His extensive experience as well in understanding the intersection of the economy, business, society, and government would be an invaluable perspective as the US confronts a number of global challenges which require a deep understanding of both geopolitics and geo-economics. Similar to Baker, Tillerson also knows how to get things done and advance the president’s vision of “making America great again.”
• Andrew J. Bowen is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.